The Reluctant Conquerors


In the harsh campaigns in the Southwest, Crook taught his men to move over the land like Apaches, and when white men failed him, he was adept in recruiting Indians for army service. Frederic Remington observed Crook’s methods and saw they made officers less “Indian fighters” than “Indian thinkers.” “He’s more of an Indian than I am,” marveled one Apache. Crook repaid such compliments; back at West Point to deliver a graduation address, he may have shocked many with this observation: With all his faults, and he has many, the American Indian is not half so black as he has been painted. He is cruel in war, treacherous at times, and not over cleanly. But so were our forefathers. His nature, however, is responsive to treatment which assures him that it is based upon justice, truth, honesty, and common sense. …

Crook hesitated to condemn even the most ferocious Apaches, because he respected their spirit and believed that “we are too culpable as a nation, for the existing condition of affairs.”

In the view of many officers the weaknesses of their own culture were more glaring than the faults of their enemy. “Barbarism torments the body; civilization torments the soul,” one colonel concluded. “The savage remorselessly takes your scalp, your civilized friend as remorselessly swindles you out of your property.” Indeed, many of the officers who led the fight for civilization seemed to accept Indian culture on its own terms. Colonel Henry B. Carrington—one of the field officers who supplied Sheridan with maddening accounts of Indian outrages—was an interesting case study. Carrington’s official report of the eighty fallen soldiers under his command in the Fetterman fight in Wyoming in 1866 provided grisly reading: Eyes torn out and laid on the rocks; teeth chopped out; joints of fingers cut off; brains taken out and placed on rocks, with members of the body; entrails taken out and exposed; hands and feet cut off; arms taken out from sockets; eyes, ears, mouth, and arms penetrated with spearheads, sticks, and arrows; punctures upon every sensitive part of the body, even to the soles of the feet and the palms of the hand.

The Indian Fighters


Yet Carrington’s own response to this carnage was not vengeful but reflective, even scholarly. A year later Margaret Carrington, the colonel’s wife, published Ab-sa-ra-ka , a study of the region the Army had fought to control. In her book she treated this Indian act of warfare with impressive open-mindedness, never directly condemning it. She did note that “the noblest traits of the soldiers were touchingly developed as they carefully handled the mutilated fragments” from the battlefield—but she also praised the Indian: “In ambush and decoy, splendid .” Close observers, she wrote, overcame anger to become reconciled, even sympathetic, to “the bold warrior in his great struggle.”

As he took charge of enlarged sections of Ab-sa-ra-ka in the 1870’s Colonel Carrington expanded on this theme of noble resistance. To him the barbarities of the whites , in their “irresponsible speculative emigration,”overshadowed the red “massacre” of Fetterman’s men. Carrington confessed, like Custer, “if I had been a red man as I was a white man, I should have fought as bitterly, if not as brutally, as the Indian fought.” And standing before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1880 to read his official report of the Fetterman mutilations again, Carrington explained to the scientists that the Indian’s disposition of enemies was intended to disable his foe in the afterlife, and so was quite understandable. Nor did he disparage the red man’s values, but rather closed his address by suggesting some inadequacies on the other—his own—side: “From 1865 until the present time, there has not been a border campaign which did not have its impulse in the aggressions of a white man.”